Engaging the West African Catholic Diaspora on behalf of Cafod


In all the roles she has filled, from the BBC to the UN and as media officer at Cafod, Nana Anto-Awuakye says she has seen herself first and foremost as a storyteller. But as she moves into a new role at Cafod, which she joined in 2005, it’s time to tell her story.

In her fifties, Nana has always stood out: “When I joined the BBC in 1989, I was the only black face in the whole department.” And while working for the UN peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, she was the first black person many of the young Albanians and Serbs she worked with to produce radio programs had ever seen.

She believes her diverse background has led her to tell stories differently. “I worked hard to bring new voices and their experiences to the airwaves, I remember working on a BBC documentary with a young girl with dual heritage – of Jamaican and white British parents – who grew up in a Deptford housing estate.

“Working in radio, I feel like I’ve been a bit braver when it comes to authenticity,” she says. “I didn’t remove pauses or noisy breathing. I thought the silences were just as important as the spoken words.”

As she takes up her new post, engaging the West African Catholic Diaspora in England and Wales on behalf of Cafod, Nana understands the strengths and challenges of being the second generation of Ghanaian parents. Her father came to the UK on a scholarship to study law and was called to the bar here. His mother, who joined him soon after, had been a civil servant for 30 years.

During her time with BBC Radio, she covered the stories of traumatized children in Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone and interviewed a psychologist in Mozambique about pupils who insisted on packing their bags and going to school during the war civilian, even if there were no teachers.

In Cafod, she saw the impact of humanitarian emergencies on communities and the frontline role the Catholic Church plays in responding to people’s immediate needs. “I have had the privilege of traveling with Cafod to countries like Pakistan and Haiti, after devastating earthquakes, and to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where communities affected by humanitarian emergencies face difficult circumstances. She says. “What shamed me was the power of people’s faith – I realized mine wasn’t as strong as theirs. I learned to be humble, to appreciate what was available to me. When I came home, I was upset about leaky faucets, uneaten food in the fridge, lights left on.

In her work, Nana saw what local church partners in Cafod could achieve. In northern Kenya in 2018, she met Father Stephen Murage, who told her, “We never give up. Whether it’s the fourth, fifth, sixth drought, we never give up. We cannot sit idly by and let people suffer. We must respond. Responding creates hope in people’s hearts. When people see Caritas, they find the strength to continue, to survive. Today, his words are true, as the Church responds to the latest devastating drought and hunger crisis, after a fourth rainless season.

The strength of the community in such places affected her deeply: “I come as a stranger and I am embraced. Her voice cracks as she recalls a woman in northern Ethiopia today, struggling with conflict, hunger and Covid, who unwrapped a small piece of bread and insisted that she takes half. “I tried to refuse, but realized it was camaraderie, the need to share with a visitor.”

After the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, she recalls seeing people emerging from tents among the ruins of the Catholic cathedral in Port-au-Prince, dressed in their Sunday best for outdoor mass among the rubble.

Born in south-east London, Nana, the eldest of four children, was raised to believe that with faith in God, hard work and the power of education, there was no limits to what children could accomplish. “Growing up, we never appreciated how much racism our parents faced,” she says. “They protected us from it.”

When the family moved to the south-east London area where they still live, Nana recalls that the majority of the local Catholic church congregation were white Irish. “We were among four black families who sat in the back of the church and felt they couldn’t get involved in parish life.” How that has changed over the years: “Now the faces on the benches are mostly from West Africa, with some from Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, and we’re very involved.”

Nana’s first task in her new role is to meet, listen to and connect with Catholics in the West African Diaspora across England and Wales. There’s the easy assumption that she should only focus on London and the South East, but she’s already been told about the Middlesbrough, Swansea and Oldham communities, albeit in smaller numbers. “It’s important to avoid the ‘groupthink’ bias,” she says. “My role will be to help Cafod understand how these communities engage with the international development agenda, parish life and what they think of Cafod. It’s about going out and enriching Cafod in different ways.

“I guess for me, my love of storytelling will be central to this role. If Cafod wants to understand this specific community, he has to understand their stories and lived experiences. And once Cafod understands those stories that come from that community, he might be able to start thinking about the next step, engagement.

“But it can’t be one-sided; this community must enrich Cafod. It must be what Pope Francis calls a culture of encounter.

Nana Anto-Awuakye is Cafod’s West African (England and Wales) Diaspora Engagement Coordinator. She was interviewed by Raymond Whitaker.

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